11 August 2013

River Tam

Via Jim Henley, I learn of Why I Hate River Tam.

Mostly, what I think I don’t like about River Tam is what the rampant adoration of her signifies. The thing is, she is not a good character — and by good, I mean very specifically: a character with emotional consistency, with depth, with the sense that she is the product of a lifetime of experience and is complete with wants and needs and thoughts and opinions. She’s not a whole character; she’s defined wholly by her craziness (“craziness” here being just a bunch of signifiers for actual disordered mentality) and her ability to kick things and that she’s pretty, and none of those things are actual character traits.

What she is is an old-fashioned, super-misogynist 18th century caricature of a woman — beautiful, delicate, basically a moron — that we’re forgiven for loving because she has the power to kick things. And of course she’s the most beloved female character from Firefly, despite the fact that every other woman on that show is more interesting, more developed, more complex, and above all, more worth our admiration.

That’s the problem that I have; the popularity of a character like River Tam exposes an undercurrent of archaism, of backwards-thinking, that obviates all the work that Whedon does with his shows. That he’s given us some pretty great characters on Firefly, and who’s the one that everyone loves?

The one that is plainly, explicitly designed to be drooled over.

The point is well-taken, and we should rightly be discomforted by the analysis. I'm a bit more forgiving of River as a character, perhaps in part because I don't have that reaction of having the hots for her.

I do think the last sentence there misses some things about what Whedon's design intentions were. From an earlier post of mine, I note that he has said:

She is the monster. She is the damsel. She is the action hero.

So no, I don't think River is designed to be “drooled over”. Or at least not only that. Not even primarily that.

But yes, it's there. Now we are awash in Action Girls in part because of how Buffy demonstrated the sexiness of that cocktail. But that's not all Whedon was going for; with River and Buffy and many of his other characters he was trying to challenge and change some of the ways we experience female characters.

And he succeeded. Having too many Action Girls is a problem, but it's a problem in large part because Whedon and others have changed our perceptions. (James Cameron, I'm looking at you.) Which probably means it's time to move on.


Rhett Aultman said...

I severely question the idea of "What Whedon Was Trying To Do." Buffy was an inherited character, and a writer who is personally fashionable (rather than simply having some fashionable works viewed individually) must necessarily generate a favorable arc of PR. I remain highly dubious.

Kat Tanaka Okopnik said...

Rhett, how is Buffy "an inherited character"? Joss Whedon wrote the original movie script.

Rhett Aultman said...

I very respectfully stand corrected. I had mistakenly believed someone else had.

Erik said...

The author is striking near something slippery, and I think it slips away from him. On the one hand, River Tam is beloved because she's flawed and broken, yet still somehow capable, in a martial sense; on the other hand, Summer Glau is loved and lusted after because she's a lovely young actress. There is a tendency to confer the actress's attributes on the character, but the biggest divide is this: River Tam is, in her broken state, incapable of having a relationship as a consenting adult*.

Which is to say, no, she's not an 18th century caricature: she has no swooning fits, she's not delicate, and you underestimate her understanding at your own peril. But the author is right to feel uneasy over adoration of her: she's not a fully realized adult, and pinning her up on a wall is dangerously close to Lolita territory.

* Yes, I realize that, for lack of a better term, "crazy people" are people, too, and that, with occupational therapy (and possibly medication) some of them are capable of having meaningful, consenting adult relationships; River Tam, in the state depicted on the show and in the movie, is nowhere near that level.